As Palo Alto explores reforms to its Police Department, city leaders are also responding to fresh accusations that two recent high-profile arrests in the Barron Park neighborhood are part of the agency's broader trend of deception and discrimination.
Over the past month, as demonstrators across the nation rallied to oppose police brutality and promote social justice, the City Council has heard dozens of comments from residents at meetings calling for the city to discipline officers involved in the 2018 arrest of Gustavo Alvarez at his home in Buena Vista Mobile Home Park and the 2019 arrest of Julio Arevalo in front of Happy Donuts.
The city has already paid $572,500 to settle the Alvarez suit, which also has sparked an FBI investigation, according to NBC Bay Area. Last Wednesday, Arevalo's attorney Cody Salfen, who also had represented Alvarez, filed a federal lawsuit against the city over the July 10, 2019, arrest of Arevalo. The suit alleges a "decades-long pattern and practice of tolerating, promoting and encouraging PAPD officers' thuggery, violence, dishonesty, barbarism and maiming of individuals like the plaintiff in the present matter."
Filed by Salfen and Samuel J. Gordon in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the suit pertains to an arrest of Arevalo by Agent Thomas DeStefano, who claimed he had seen Arevalo engage in what appeared to be a hand-to-hand drug transaction. The arrest was captured by the doughnut shop's surveillance camera and by DeStefano's body-worn camera, footage that the department released earlier this month. Neither footage shows the drug transaction that DeStefano references. It does show DeStefano asking Arevalo to stop and Arevalo attempting to walk away. DeStefano then walks up to Arevalo and attempts to detain him while pressing him against a railing in front of the doughnut shop. When Arevalo protests, DeStefano flips him to the ground.
After being taken to the police station for processing, Arevalo was brought to Stanford Hospital and treated for a fractured orbital bone that he sustained during the arrest.
Rather than focusing exclusively on the Arevalo incident, the 199-page complaint details a series of incidents, some stretching back to nearly two decades, and policies that it alleges have contributed to the culture of discrimination. This includes the violent 2003 arrest of Albert Hopkins in 2003, a Black resident who was living in his van and who was beaten and pepper-strayed; the abrupt resignation of Police Chief Lynne Johnson in 2008 after she responded to a spate of robberies by directing officers to question African American people who wear do-rags; the violent arrest of Tyler Harney in 2013 after a traffic stop, an incident during which Harney suffered an epileptic seizure and that led to the city paying a $250,000 settlement; the allegations that Capt. Zach Perron used a racial slur in 2014 in a comment made to a Black officer who has since left the department; the Alvarez arrest in February 2018; and the Council's decision last December to revise the scope of its independent police auditor to explicitly exclude internal personnel matters.
That decision to change the scope of the audits, the suit claims, made it "significantly easier" for the city to hide misconduct by officers.
Police Chief Robert Jonsen has consistently said that he is committed to holding his officers accountable, a message he reiterated at a June 25 town hall on race and policing sponsored by Palo Alto Online. The lawsuit, however, paints a picture of a close-knit department in which supervisors review — and generally excuse — misconduct by their colleagues, who often happen to be their friends. The suit notes that police Lt. Ben Becchetti, who reviewed DeStefano's use of force and deemed it "justified," happened to have been a groomsman at DeStefano's wedding.
Becchetti found that there were some "discrepancies" between DeStefano's reports and the videos reviewed, according to the suit. In doing so, the suit claims, Becchetti had "minimized and failed to properly label" DeStefano's "falsification" — namely, his assertion that he had witnessed a "hand-to-hand" drug transaction before he approached Arevalo.
"Comparing this to the surveillance footage, it is abundantly clear that Julio never touched hands with any Hispanic male (or anyone else)," the suit states. "No such 'hand-to-hand' transaction or anything that could be constructed as such ever occurred. The surveillance footage establishes this information Agent DeStefano put in the police report was fabricated (i.e. Agent DeStefano lied in his police report)."
The suit calls Becchetti's review an example of the department's "flawed and conflicted system of investigating allegations of misconduct." It also includes a gallery of photos of Palo Alto police officers, some of whom are in uniform and appear to be on duty, attending the retirement party of Sgt. Wayne Benitez, the supervising officer during Alvarez's arrest who was seen on surveillance footage slamming Alvarez into the hood of a car and apparently mocking him for being gay.
In an introduction to the video of the Arevalo arrest, police Lt. James Reifschneider said the officer had recognized a man who he knew was on active probation. The officer, he said, saw the man conduct what he "believed could have been a hand-to-hand drug transaction."
The suit strongly disputes both of these assertions. Pointing to dispatch audio, Salfen noted that DeStefano doesn't use Arevalo's name at any point during the arrest and only learned his identity "a significant amount of time after he had already detained and brutally attacked Julio."
The suit concludes that the officer "apparently attempted to justify in his report his unlawful and violent detention, arrest and violence toward Julio by falsely claiming that he was aware of certain information before the detention/arrest/attack."
"The trickle-down effects of this pattern and practice within this rogue police agency and municipality are beyond dangerous," the suit states. People's lives are not only at risk, people are being severely and critically injured for no reason, all under the false guise of public safety. And not just people in general, very specific types of people. Julio, a Latino male, was beaten and knocked unconscious, despite the fact that he didn't do anything illegal, he didn't attack any police officers, and he didn't have anything illegal in his possession."
The lawsuit comes at a time when the city is preparing for a wholesale review of department policies and exploration of alternative service models, including one that combines fire, police and medical services into a single Department of Public Safety. Last week, Mayor Adrian Fine announced the creation of four ad hoc committees to focus on police reforms and diversity initiatives. A committee consisting of Vice Mayor Tom DuBois and council members Alison Cormack and Lydia Kou will be charged with reviewing police operations and hiring practices, while council members Liz Kniss and Greg Tanaka will explore alternative service models.
There also will be a committee focusing on police transparency and accountability (DuBois and Councilman Eric Filseth); and another one focused on citywide diversity (Fine, Cormack and Kniss). Each committee will be making a monthly report to the public.
The council has also passed a resolution in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and has commissioned artists to paint "Black Lives Matter" on a street near City Hall.
Some residents have called for the city to move faster and to be more aggressive in reforming the Police Department, either by "defunding" and shifting some of its funding toward social services, health programs and affordable housing; or by repealing policies that make it harder to hold officers accountable for misconducts. At the Thursday panel discussion, resident Winter Dellenbach proposed removing a policy that allows officers who are subject to citizen complaints or internal investigations to have these investigations expunged from their records. The idea was immediately endorsed by former East Palo Alto Police Chief Ron Davis, who served as executive director of President Barack Obama's President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Jonsen called the Palo Alto department "very progressive" and said he is preparing to enhance its data collection to comply with Assembly Bill 953, a 2015 law that requires all police departments to collect and publicize data on all police stops.
"We also feel very, very serious about looking at our data internally, especially over the past five years, in regards to our use of force," Jonsen said at the town hall.